Sojourn on a Sheep Farm

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In the midst of the exploding corona crisis, we faced a difficult decision of whether to stay put or head back to Canada or Austria. The decision was easy, however, once we got an offer to stay with a host outside of El Bolson, Argentina, through workaway.

What is Workaway?

Similar to bewelcomeworkaway is a fantastic platform that connects locals and travellers around the world. Typically, a traveller finds a local host by browsing profiles in a given location. After some back and forth, an arrangement is established where the traveller receives free accommodation and usually also groceries in exchange for 5 or so hours of work per day, not including weekends.

Travellers receive an interesting experience in a local setting and the opportunity to gain new skills while spending little money of their own, and hosts get cheap labour tailored to what they need on their property. Most importantly, of course, is the opportunity for a cultural and personal exchange between travellers and hosts to take place, which is really the icing on the cake!

As soon as we arrived on the hobby farm run by our hosts we felt incredibly welcome and we knew it was the right decision. We were shown to our own private apartment above the main house with all of the staples and cooking supplies we needed, and given a chore list to start on the next day once we had relaxed and gotten ourselves settled. What a welcome!

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The view of the Andes from the garden

The farm is part of the dispersed rural community of Mallín Ahogado, a retreat for expats and hippies which the (now mysteriously defunct) wikipedia page describes as being known for its waterfall and fairies. The view from the farm out to the Andes and Chile beyond is phenomenal, and at 7 or so hectares there is plenty of space to wander for all of the people, dogs, cats, chickens, and sheep that call the place home.

All those acres don’t tend themselves, however, and we were happy to take a tour and get started on our chores the next day. Tree planting, weed whacking, making elderberry syrup, manure collection, and more kept us busy as some of our first tasks on the farm. It might not be obvious from the pictures, but Elliott DID in fact also work.

The Sheep

Caring for the chickens and sheep are part of the daily chores on the farm, and we have become good friends with the seventeen sheep that live on the farm.

The flock’s sole ram wasn’t doing so well when we arrived, however. A band had been placed around his testicles to have the blood supply cut and to have them fall off, but it wasn’t applied properly. The testicles had swelled up, but there was still enough blood getting through that they stayed alive and refused to fall off, instead bulging up to the size of cantaloupe and impeding the poor ram’s ability to walk. While the other sheep were grazing he was often lying by himself, unable to get around. One night we grabbed hold of him and took a look, and it was worse than we thought, so the next day we called the vet.

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The poor ram and his giant testicles

Despite the lockdown measures the vet was able to make a housecall. We caught the ram, flipped him gently onto his side, and tied his feet so he wouldn’t kick. Elliott held him still while the vet took out a scalpel, and in less than twenty seconds the testicles were clean off! That wasn’t the end of it, however, and a clamp and some anticoagulant were needed to stop the bleeding. We unceremoniously buried the swollen, rock-hard testicles in a hole in an undisclosed location on the farm while the stricken ram slowly recovered and started to munch some hay.

It also turns out that live maggots were wriggling around inside the flesh, so Mr. Ram needed three doses of anti-pest/antibiotic spray a day, and it was our job to catch him and make sure it happened. He was also thinner than the other sheep, so we were sure to bring some nice goodies for him to snack on too. After a few days he was quick enough to avoid us about half the time we tried to catch him, and after a week he made a full recovery!

How to immunize a flock of sheep

After only a couple of weeks on the farm we got to help give immunizations to all seventeen sheep. It turns out it’s not so complicated and definitely something that can be done at home. Here’s how:

Step 1

Corral the sheep into a small area where they can’t run away from you. Find your first patient, grab some handfuls of wool, and hold on tight.

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Step 2

Reach down and grab the inside legs. Engage your core and flip up and out, being careful to clear the ground lest you break the poor sheep’s leg.

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Step 3

Hold that sheep down. It’s gonna fight, especially if it’s a young one.

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Step 4

Ideally with a partner, administer a subcutaneous injection just under the skin, or an oral medication by squeezing a syringe into the mouth. Beware that a sheep can and will bite a plastic syringe into pieces if it gets the chance.

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Step 5

Mark each immunized sheep with a block of chalk so you don’t accidentally do the same sheep twice.

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Step 6

Set your flock of colourful sheep free!

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The Sheep Thief

Before we arrived at the farm there had been issues with a sheep thief. Somebody had been sneaking onto the farm at night to steal sheep. It was always young ones that were stolen as they apparently taste much better, and we even discovered the pelt of one of the unfortunate sheep just off of the property. Something had to be done.

Setting up some sort of alarm was the first option, but with the country on lockdown and stores closed this was impossible. As a Plan B, Elliott suggested sleeping in the hay loft to ambush the thief at night, but was warned that locals typically carry large knives and know how to use them. So what was Plan C?

Booby traps.

Using Home Alone as inspiration, the rickety sheep barn was transformed into a madman’s fun house. Electro-shock system on the door handle? Check. Swinging rock and jangling horseshoes at the other entrance? Check. Other contraptions to stop a sheep thief in his tracks? That’s for us to know and the sheep thief to find out.

The Chickens

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A monster egg with two yolks!

We had four hens in Victoria, so keeping chickens wasn’t that new to us. Despite the fact that chickens may be some of the stupidest creatures on the planet, we still love them for the food they are able to produce, and in our opinion everybody who likes to eat eggs should have their own chickens if possible, whether in their backyard or on a farm. By owning chickens you also come to realize that they are each individual animals with personalities, and it’s nice to know that your eggs don’t come at the expense of the immense suffering that is part of industrial food production.

When the time comes, even an egg laying chicken can still provide tasty meat for a soup or stew, and one of our first tasks on the farm was to kill, butcher, and eat two chickens. Early one morning Elliott went out to the chicken coop, brought two chickens over to the wood chopping stump, and cut off their heads with a single swing of a hatchet each. While some people may be a bit squeamish about such a thing, it’s good to remember that most chickens that people have eaten in their lifetimes have lived far nastier lives and suffered far worse deaths. If a person isn’t able to look the reality of meat consumption in the face, then it might be worth considering not eating meat at all.

Animal Neighbours

Aside from the animals on the farm itself, there were several other neighbours with whom we were pleased to make an acquaintance. Coronavirus restrictions prevented us from meeting with any people, but that wasn’t the case with animals!

One of our new friends was a cute little kitten who followed us around for an entire day and night before we took him back home.

Several horses also live in properties around the farm. Most of them are shy, and so was this kind horse at first, but he couldn’t resist some apples and eventually became happy to see us when we would come and visit.

Keeping Busy

After a couple of weeks of lockdown, the President of Argentina announced that measures would be extended for another two weeks. And another two weeks. And another two weeks. Even though Argentina had far fewer cases of the virus than most other countries on Earth, the government was keen on taking an extremely cautious approach.

While we felt extremely safe from the virus on the farm, we were getting a little bit antsy staying in the same place for so long. Still, to put things in perspective, all of our needs were met and we even had the privilege of going for walks through the meadows and pastures while other people around the world were confined to apartment buildings. With this knowledge in mind to keep us grounded, we were left with our chores and everything else we could think of to keep us busy.

With no yeast to be found in the supermarkets, Elliott hopped on the sourdough train along with everybody else, while Lisa tried her hand at basket making.

After living with a single gas burner and two pots for the last few months, Lisa was also happy to cook some very lovely meals, often with fresh and organic ingredients.

To celebrate Easter, just for something to do, Lisa died some eggs with natural dyes and we had a lovely brunch with grilled beef and lots of other tasty food with our hosts in the sunshine.

The Approach of Autumn

When we left for our trip to Latin America we had planned to stay in roughly summer conditions most of the time and packed accordingly. With each passing day on the farm, however, the autumn weather crept closer. Yellow leaves fell on grass greening with the autumn rains, while the mountain slopes beyond turned red with the changing of the season. Rain began to fall more frequently, while tiny bits of snow began to sprinkle the distant peaks as a warning that winter was on its way. While it was all very pretty, we couldn’t ignore the fact that every day was getting colder.

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On chilly mornings we set ourselves to the task of burning several large brush piles, which was a nice way to keep warm while working. The hot coals provided an excellent place for impromptu lunchtime picnics, and in the afternoons we were still able to enjoy a few hours of brilliant sunshine.

It even snowed once on the farm itself, but with some old sweaters produced from the wool from our very same sheep friends we carried on and kept busy.

The Next Chapter

After over a month on the farm, each of us only left the property once or twice to go buy groceries. While the change of pace was nice, staying in one place for weeks at a time was not quite what we had planned for our trip through South America. With the beetle sitting idle and the two of us sitting impatiently in our little apartment, we were hopeful for the lockdown in Argentina to end on May 10th, 2020 as the rest of the world started to lift restrictions.

Unfortunately we were not so lucky and the lockdown was most recently extended until May 24th. That will mark just over two months that we have been on the farm waiting out the COVID storm.

Our time on the farm has been fantastic and we have both learned lots of new skills. As soon as we’re able to hit the road, however, we’ll be in the beetle heading north to warmer weather and new things to discover as fast as we can.

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